I don’t know if Kay D’Arcy is Jewish. Probably not. But there are undoubtedly a great many Jews who are like her — well past retirement age, overflowing with chutzpah, and possessed of the “showbiz gene”. And many of these could, and just might, follow her example.
Twenty years ago, with a career as a midwife behind her, Ms D’Arcy applied to a London drama school — and got in. Ten years ago, she quit the UK and decided to try her luck in Los Angeles. Since then, she has played an assortment of unenviable roles — women “dying in bed or having a stroke”.
Now, however, at the age of 79, she has landed the lead part in a new online action drama called Agent 88, which has already attracted a cult following.
She plays the eponymous Agent 88, described by the producers as “the world’s most deadly assassin”. Kay herself has undertaken martial arts training and has amazed those around her with her ability in the series to switch at will from a “decrepit” old woman to “a highly skilled warrior”.
That there always exists a pool of British Jews cut from similar cloth was brought home to me in the days when Kay D’Arcy was still treading wards rather than boards. I had not been working long for the JC when I interviewed a well-known director.
At the time, he was planning a TV drama in which he wanted the opening scene — depicting young Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms arriving in Britain — to be spoken entirely in Yiddish, with English sub-titles.
It was proving difficult to cast and the director asked if I could place something in the JC to help him widen his search. So I did. On the Friday when the piece appeared, my telephone rang incessantly. Although there were a number of different callers, it was essentially the same call.
It went something like this: “Excuse me but I saw that item about the television play. Look, I’m not exactly an actor. And I’m not exactly young. But mein Yiddish… oyy! Everyone tells me I should be on the stage — or the television already!”
I did send one or two of the callers along, and I am sure that the director was charmed by them. For who among Jews does not have an uncle, aunt, cousin or other relative with a talent or taste for the performing arts, be it mime, melodrama, make-up or stand-up? And how multiple are our joke-tellers and raconteurs, their stories ripening with the years.
That Jews are great tellers of jokes is a truism. Anybody who has seen examples of the YouTube sensation, Old Jews Telling Jokes, will endorse this. The especially endearing aspect of these particular gems is that the people telling the jokes are all amateurs — retired accountants, gynaecologists, lawyers and such like.
But once these skills are seen, it is hard to keep them hidden. From its origins on the internet, Old Jews Telling Jokes has spawned a TV series, a book and an off-Broadway show.
The inherent absurdity of the process of ageing and death, so powerfully evoked by Samuel Beckett among others, has also frequently been mined by Jewish writers and performers, not only for comedy but for ironic, consoling and even uplifting effect.
The late Alan Isler’s brilliant novel, The Prince of West End Avenue, about a group of old-age-home residents putting on a production of Hamlet, ticks all those boxes.
Joseph Heller, the creator of Catch 22, modern literature’s absurdist concept par excellence, towards the end of his life used to have lunch every week with a bunch of close friends, all of them invalids. Heller himself had Guillain-Barré syndrome; one friend had cancer; another, chronic heart disease, and so on. These sessions, said Heller, were among the most joyous and hilarious of his life.
Two British Jewish women of the theatre, Sonja Linden and Sue Lefton, have recently established The Performance Ensemble, a company for older actors, the eldest of whom is 83, drawn from a range of cultural backgrounds.
Although this is a professional project, it does show that there is always a potential outlet for someone blessed with the ability to entertain and the desire to do so irrespective of age. And isn’t that a pretty good definition of a Jew? Shekoach!